This week, media circles buzzed over the news that wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media has been bankrolled by a surprising patron: billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel. The PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor was angry at Gawker for its coverage of him and his friends, especially a 2007 story reporting that he is gay, and he bided his time to get revenge. As Thiel told the New York Times, “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest. . . . I thought it was worth fighting back.”
Curious to see what incited Thiel’s ire, I went back and read the post by Owen Thomas that “outed” Thiel (quotation marks intentional; as Thomas noted in 2007, Thiel’s sexual orientation was already well-known in Silicon Valley). Smart and well-written, the piece used the tech industry’s skittish attitude toward gay venture capitalists such as Thiel to explore a matter of public interest: the culture of conformity permeating the Valley and its implications for innovation. I couldn’t see what had made Thiel so mad. (I briefly worked for Gawker Media for a few months in 2006, at a politics site called Wonkette that it no longer owns.)
To his defenders, though, and to Gawker’s many critics, Thiel had every right to be angry. In the New York Observer, Ryan Holiday said the article “needlessly out[ed] and maliciously antagoniz[ed]” Thiel, so Gawker got what it deserved when a jury hit the company with a nine-figure verdict for publishing Hogan’s sex tape. Holiday was far from the first to criticize Gawker for outing or attempting to out celebrities: Last year, Marlow Stern lambasted the site in the Daily Beast for what he called its “creepy obsession with outing closeted men,” including Thiel.
The idea that Thiel is getting revenge for having been wronged, that Gawker’s original reporting on him was just another example of the same bottom-feeding impulses that drove the Hogan post, might sound reasonable at first. But objecting to a report that a man’s friends and colleagues all knew was gay sends a pernicious message that has nothing to do with tabloid journalism, the power of billionaires or free speech. There’s nothing shameful about being gay — but the idea that Gawker committed a grievous sin in “outing” Thiel and that it deserves to pay dearly, perhaps with its very existence, implies that there is.
In the United States in 2016, marriage equality is the law of the land. In my home state of New York, it is no longer defamatory to be called gay. The law recognizes that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. So why haven’t public attitudes caught up? Why do so many people still hold such antiquated views about outing? Why all the pearl-clutching over the alleged awfulness of reporting that a public figure whose sexuality wasn’t really a secret happens to be gay? (The outing of private people with no connection to matters of public concern, such as Gawker’s controversial coverage of a married media executive, is another matter.)
I’d feel differently if people were reacting to something that happened 20 years ago. In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act passed both houses of Congress with large majorities and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Criminal prohibitions on gay sex were still on the books (and wouldn’t get struck down until 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas). Gays couldn’t serve openly in the military. Few celebrities were out.
I’m gay myself, and I remained firmly in the closet throughout the 1990s. As a college junior in 1994, I wrote what I’d call a “methinks the gay doth protest too much” column for the Harvard Crimson. In “Those Happy Homos,” I complained about National Coming Out Day and wondered, ironically enough, “How many homosexual Harvard students are still in the closet? Two? Three?” (Answer: at least one.)
So I understand internalized homophobia; I’ve been there. But my guilt about being gay didn’t spontaneously generate. It came from social messaging — reinforced by mass media, pop culture, conversations with my family and friends — that being gay was somehow shameful or scandalous.
That negative messaging about being gay is reinforced every time people talk about how outing is “gross” or “violence,” as if being gay is such a terrible thing that people have an inherent right and obvious need to keep it a secret.
Today, being gay is not any different from, for example, having brown hair. It might be easier to conceal, but it’s just a fact, plain and simple, and nothing you need to hide from the world. Saying “he’s gay” should be no more problematic than saying “he has brown hair.” But when we treat those two things differently — when we say that one statement should be said sotto voce, or not at all — we send a message (often to young people, like the boy I once was). That message: Being gay isn’t neutral or factual, it’s something different. Something bad.
Even the right to privacy that led the Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, to strike down state bans on consensual gay sex looks different now, more than a decade later. Various state laws protect against invasions of privacy, but they typically create liability for disclosing otherwise private facts about someone that are “offensive to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.” Simply being attracted to people of the same sex doesn’t meet that test anymore.
I acknowledge that my views on this issue both presume and reflect a certain amount of privilege. Peter Thiel is rich and powerful, a billionaire and Republican power broker (a pledged delegate for presidential candidate Donald Trump), who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, a bastion of pro-LGBT sentiment. I live in New York, another gay-friendly city, and I work in media, where being gay is an asset, not a liability. In other professions and in other parts of the world, being openly gay can carry harsh consequences — ostracism, physical harm, even death. So I understand the danger and wrongness of outing someone who lives in such a society, where outing can lead to violence. But Thiel and I (fortunately) don’t live in such a society — and it’s nonsensical to act as though we do. Yet many observers seem to take a dogmatic “one size fits all” approach to whether it’s ever okay to report that someone is gay.
I’m an optimist on LGBT rights (partly because of how quickly the tide turned on marriage equality). I believe that a few years from now, we’ll look back on controversies over outing and view them as quaint. I’m hopeful that we will soon live in a world where being openly gay is a right that anyone can enjoy. And we’ll reach that world a whole lot faster if we just stop with all the hand-wringing over the outing of billionaires and celebrities such as Thiel.
We need less sanctimony about privacy and more gay role models to go public. And when they do, we should greet their coming out with support and encouragement — or maybe, better yet, a shrug and a yawn.